I’m racing, not running!

Progress is linearly proportional to one’s efforts but results often come in cycles. – several wise men

Coming off a 22-month streak, the 2013-14 season was looking rather normal. KTM in Sep followed by 75k Ultra in Nov and finish off with SCMM in Jan.

I had come within flirting distance of sub-4 times in a few training FMs and finally did a 3:55 (or thereabouts) in Apr so was flush with confidence, optimismghg and expectation.

KTM 2013

ktm_2013_barefoot_flyingCame really close to a DNS (Did Not Start) thanks to a judgement lapse on the preceding Friday – carbo-loading at a non-regular eating joint (Rajasthani Rajdhani at that) was not a smart thing after all. Curd with jeera powder until Sat evening brought parity to proceedings. It was a trail run and I had prepared myself mentally and logistically to dart into the bushes. Fortunately, a final pre-race checkin to the loo brought glad tidings and I was mentally & physiologically re-centered.

In 5 years at KTM (and 2nd time barefoot), a first half of 1:55 was easily my most aggressive start. My ‘two Cocojals per FM’ strategy seemed to be working – for a change, cramps wouldn’t be the culprit this time around. The payback for my unsustainable first half pace was an undramatic and inexorable slowing down. I finished in 4 hrs 9 min. A highly respectable time for KTM but I was gunning for a lot faster. I’d be back (I promised myself).

Ultra 2013

The urge to run my second 75k ultra started immediately after I finished the 2012 edition. I was mentally a lot stronger. Physically too, with a lot of consistently high mileage weeks, weekends and months. Thanks to Sir Gaunker‘s tried and tested nutrition strategy for ultras, ragi was going to be my primary fuel. What’s more, Rajaram’s wife very kindly agreed to prepare the ragi pudding for my race. Meanwhile Rajaram was registered for the 100k and in the deepest vein of purple form that season.

ultra_2013_dawnThe Bangalore Ultra’s starts are always magical. 5am with darting flashlights and a jumbled formation of runners tentatively making their way forward. The conditions ensure that no one takes off at 10k pace.

The usual banter with Nari and Vasu (who deserve a post on what makes them uniquely crazy) continued till the 6.5k hydration point. As I exited, something clicked in my head. An inner voice said “I’m racing, not running!” and I instantly knew what to do. If this scene needed to be picturized (and I was the director), I’d show the protagonist’s eyes narrowing, focusing in a William Tell manner seeing *just* the apple on his son’s head and set off in a copybook stance of an elite Kenyan runner.

Nari and Vasu dissolved into the gray and off I went. To run my race. It was the first time I had turned on my ‘game face’. A face, a mode, an attitude that stayed with me for the remainder of the race.

I completed the first (25k) loop in 2.5 hours. I knew it was too fast so (after briefly feeling good about it) I consciously slowed down a tad bit. I finished the 2nd loop in 2 hrs 45 min. My Bhukmp compatriots noted my in-the-zone running with a range of comments. Nari said “Man! You are going fast” (with a tone tinged with concern). I passed Chandra at the 18k mark. I had not seen him because he was on a bio break. He yelled out to me “Hey, you want to break Sunil Menon’s course record?” There was no danger of that of course. Sunil’s (last year’s winner) time was 7.5 hours. Chandra (who finished 2nd behind Sunil in 8 hrs 15min) was probably afraid I might better his Bhukmp record 🙂 Until the start of the 3rd loop I actually thought I had a shot at it.

Hari observed “Did you realize you just had your best FM time?” He was right! I had crossed the 42k mark in 4hrs 5min.

ultra2013_on_podiumThe 3rd loop pulled back proceedings thanks to my tactical error in the first loop. I had forgotten that my Cocojal stache was only at the starting point aid station (and not at the midpoint) so my first Cocojal dose came at the 32k mark (thanks to Rajaram’s generosity). At the start of the 3rd  loop, I traded my 4mm huaraches with 10mm Puma slippers. The footwear change was by design but things started going awry soon thereafter. With the spectre of cramps looming in my mind, it was only a matter of time before my calves obliged. I had my best stroke of luck that day – this happened 100m from the medical/physio van. Chandra, who had amazingly caught up despite a painful bout of plantar, helped me to the physio. A 5min massage by Physio Peter changed the game again. I felt good as new so off I went again. A bit more circumspect this time. On my final turnaround (with a mere 6k to go), I got a 2nd massage from Peter (for proactive good measure) and finished in 8 hrs 38 min. In 2nd place. Winner that year was Mumbai’s talented ultra runner Abbas Sheikh (in 7.5 hrs).

SCMM 2014

After landing in Mumbai airport, I recall Nari asking me about my target time and my reply was “I don’t know but I was definitely going for it”. What was *it*? I would find out on race day. I took the “racing, not running” mantra to my final race too. At Azad Maidan (about 10 min before the gun), broke away from my group after exchanging some pleasantries and made my way to the starting line. Time to picturize again people… that same purposeful narrowing of the eyes. No William Tell but a killer this time. A killer moving through the crowd with each step taking him inexorably towards his victim. I was slotted in the B corral but I didn’t stop when I reached the front rows of B. The absence of any policing merely confirmed what was already in my head. I kept walking until I reached the first few rows of the starting line. I was probably rubbing shoulders with runners who would finish in the Top 10 but I didn’t care. I was running *my* race and I was expressing intent (to myself) in the most aggressive way possible.

To end proceedings, here’s a brief race report I shared with my gang after returning to Bangalore.

Dear friends,
Had a fantastic race. Ravi made the mistake of asking for my story at the airport last evening and he got the VERY detailed account. Here’s the short version:
Two words: very satisfied.

I didn’t want to squeak in for a sub-4 finish but blow past it – goal largely achieved. First race where I didn’t cramp – 2 cocojals did the trick. I had visualized them as my two six-shooters. Emptied the empty one at the 7k mark, second one was downed soon after the halfway mark. Strategy to go close to 5:00 pace for *as long as possible* paid off.

Decision to run barefoot (as opposed to huaraches) was vindicated and the only time I gazed balefully at the asphalt was on the final few kms of Marine Drive. Great BF-friendly course barring 3 stretches where asphalt was very coarse – the last Marine Drive stretch (where Jugy/Sunil cheered us) and the only time I wished I had the huaraches. Did “catch-back” with Pankaj and Bahuja at 3 different points – I surged ahead each time – Pankaj ko motivation diya hoga since he surged past me in the last 700m 🙂

Played cat-and-mouse game with Vaishali between 21k and 39k. She was super-focused but I couldn’t resist a very brief conversation. I was not sure how to tackle the Peddar hill (apparently I had forgotten Nandi Hills) so I asked her. Pat came the reply – “Don’t walk, increase arm swing, drop stride”. I followed the good lady’s advice and remained untroubled.

First race as “Veteran”, first FM race with the analog Titan Edge (glanced at it maybe 4-5 times). 5:11 in the 1st quarter, 5:12 in the 2nd, 5:21 in the 3rd and 6:00 in the 4th.

Overall rank: 159, category rank: 23. Can’t really complain. Thank you – oh running gods! It finally all fell into place. The sub-4 monkey off my back.

Closing note: This post entered my Drafts folder on Nov 4, 2014 so a gestational stay of 23 months 🙂

Softly, as in a spiritual sunrise

ultra_spiritual_sunrise_picTwo years ago, I ran in 3 races. Last year it came down to two. This year I ran the Kaveri Trail Marathon and it’s my first (and last) race for the year.

My running goal for 2015 was rather basic – “just keep running”. Under normal circumstances, this would have meant following the Triple Jump running plan. But work has been all-consuming and my lungs haven’t been too happy since last November.

After three consecutive years of running the 75km Bangalore Ultra, I missed this year’s edition. It was inevitable of course.

There was no wistfulness at having missed the race (jeez! I was plenty busy) but there was something else – a subliminal brew that surfaced last weekend.

 *******

On Sat morning, I modified my regular Dandi run with a detour that took me to Gandhi Bazaar and a breakfast with an old friend (visiting from California). Can’t complain much with a 2.25 hour long run. The next morning got me to the NGV park. While the boys played basketball, I ran in the NGV park. A rather unique 400+ meter rectangular track which features 6 turns (instead of 4). The basketball coaching session went longer than usual and, before I knew it, my Sunday run had become a 2.5 hour run. A barefoot friendly ‘paving blocks’ track with very few walkers (and just 2 other runners who showed up in the last hour) combined for a rather tranquil and circumspect run.

The thought of an unsupported solo ultra run had entered my head earlier this year. It seemed like a good compromise – no race pressure yet experience the pleasure of an ultra. The ‘unsupported’ element seemed to add to the challenge.

As I ran circles around a park with 6 edges, ultra thoughts wafted in.

How about.. running from home, run beyond the airport to a suitable lunch venue?

What was a suitable distance? 50km?

Nah! Didn’t like that answer. I had done 50k 4 years ago. Sure this wasn’t my strongest year but still..

More running.. and a new idea emerged. A 50 miler that would end at the Nandi Hills summit.

Much to like about this idea.. Tactical thoughts took over at this stage.. a cab to drop me off at a suitable point on the highway.. refueling options along the way, etc.

And, for the strangest of reasons, I recalled a mythological story. The one where Ganesha and Kartik (sons of Shiva and Parvathi) decided to race ‘around the world’ to settle some sibling rivalry.

The spirits of NGV Park had been talking to me of course..

Guess what my next thought was.. Hey, I could run my own personal Ultra right here.. in NGV Park. Running circles for as long as I wanted to (or was capable of).

So what’s the plan?

A 12-hour run starting 5am on Sunday, Nov 22. Considering that the maximum distance I’ve run is 75km and, more importantly, the maximum time I’ve been on my running feet was 9 hours 45 min, it should get interesting.

(Gulp!)

There I said it and also thumbed a finger at an old superstition to not announce my runs *before hand*.

Bangalore Ultra 2014 Race Report

It was the best of races. It was the worst of races.

Let’s examine that adopted idiom. What IS the “best” of races? The race where you shatter your PB by double-digit minutes? Or that tough trail where you find yourself pushed to the cliff (multiple times) and you claw back some respectability?

Nothing is ever *supposed* to turn out the way we want them to. Because if it did, the world would be chock-full of happy people. Because if it did, the world would be full of elite runners who would ALL finish at the EXACT same time at EVERY DAMN RACE! (If you are an Asterix buff, you’ll know which scene I’m referring to)

I think a test match is a great analogy to ultra-running.

Finishing within 15 min of your target time would be a “win”. A DNF with “no good reasons” (more on this later in the post) would be a “loss”. A “draw” is clawing respectability against unforeseen circumstances.

Salvaging a draw in a test match is, in many respects, more satisfying than a rampaging victory where all your batsmen, bowlers and fields click together like a dream. You see where this story is headed, don’t you?

****

Lead-up to the race

This was the 3rd successive year I was running the 75k distance. In year#1 I finished in 9 hrs 46 min with plenty of gas left in the tank. That and a feeling that 75k might just be ‘my’ distance made me count my days to Bangalore Ultra 2013. With a finish time of 8 hrs 38 min, it was a nearly perfect race (there was the little matter of a few Cocojal bottles which might have made it perfect!)

I awaited Ultra 2014 with a greater fervor than ever. There was one crucial difference though. The previous two Ultras were in the midst of a 22-month purple patch where I was running a marathon (or greater) a month. My weekly mileage was steady and high (by ‘my’ standards). Prior to the first ultra, I had one 55k training run under my belt and at least two other high mileage weekends. Last year, I was scheduled to run a 50k training run but stopped at 46k because I was ‘feeling good’ (yeah, sometimes my type uses this kind of excuse).

This year? One 47k training run at a pace reasonably close to target. It mentally assured me that I was “ready”. In fact, I registered for the race only after this run. The timing of this run (exactly two weeks before race day) was not ideal. Heck! There were very few ‘ideal’ things at this year’s leadup:

  • Bout of bronchitis in Oct (first after 20 years of childhood asthma). My reaction: Whew! Thank god it happened in Oct and not Nov. Never mind that I missed many long runs as a result.
  • Nagging lower back pain (started 14 months ago and periodically makes an appearance in despite my following a prescribed daily regimen of exercises). My reaction: at least my back didn’t act up during the 47k training run.
  • Cold and mild return of the bronchitis at T-6 days. My reaction: Whew! I’ve got a whole SIX days to recover from this thing.

The Goal and Race Tactics

Mentally I couldn’t have been more prepared. The target and race tactics had crystalized. When the 8 year-old popped the inevitable question “how long will you take this time”, I answered confidently “Well! I plan to do the first loop in 2.5 hours and stay as close to that pace as possible in the next two loops”. When he persisted, I said “8 hours would be awesome but I’ll take even 8:30”. Other tactics I had worked out in my head:

  • Footwear: first two loops in previous two years had been my trusty 4mm huaraches. In the third loop, I had upgraded to Brooks Adrenaline in year#1 and the softly reassuring Puma chappals in year#2. This year, I decided to go “all-in” with the newly acquired Amuri Cloud sandals.
  • T-shirt change: changing tees and sweatbands after every loop seems to work for me. Last year, I added a twist by doing a half-monty for the final loop. This year I ruled it out on grounds that it would upset my ‘rhythm’ (more on this rhythm business and how I missed an OBVIOUS rhythm crusher later in the post)
  • Hydration: The learning from last year was that Cocojal consumption needed to start early and be regular. I was prepared with 4 bottles at the 5km mark and 3 at the starting point.
  • Nutrition: Normally I get by with my trusty Navadarshanam Dry Fruit Delight complemented by sandwiches at the venue. After last year’s finish, one of our group’s resident ultra studs (aka Sir Gaunkar) shared his secret – a Goan ragi recipe that he grew up with. A few days before race day and a few calls later, his kind wife agreed to make the delicious ragi-with-jaggery cake.

First Loop

Damn! It took me 800+ words to get to the start of loop 1? Yeah – I’ve been known to indulge in banter.

Dawn broke near the 8km mark and I jettisoned the torch at the next aid station. A few minutes later I saw a green snake galloping away to the left. I SO badly wanted to announce “I saw a snake! I saw a snake!” Instead, I pointed in that direction to the runner immediately behind.

Who needs a Garmin in an ultra?

Garmin Forerunner 305 was in my past. In my present was a 20-year Timex analog timekeeper (gifted by my brother) in a plastic sleeve. At the 10k mark, I looked up the time and was pleasantly surprised to see that I was BANG on target (i.e. 6:00 pace). I noticed that I was still feeling winded. It normally takes my lungs 5-7km to get warmed up so I wasn’t worried yet. When my lung rhythm didn’t improve even after the 15k mark, I was miffed (rain rain go away.. come back…) Unfortunately one can’t wish these things away. This lack-of-lung-rhythm (aka “feeling winded”) would stay with me for the rest of the goddamn race. Oops! Is my second loop frustration spilling over already?

Curve ball #2

In my brief ultra-running ‘career’ I was surprised to encounter the second curve ball already. I was already feeling tired. I must need elaborate. I was feeling ‘second loop tired’ – I had enough muscle memory to realize that I should NOT be feeling this tired at this stage of the race. I was still in my ‘game face zone’ (i.e. staying focused with controlled thoughts and acknowledging runners shouts with a mild obligatory thumbs-up). My fortunes were soon to change. I’ve never had anyone pace me at ANY race and this time I would have THREE of them! A tall fella loomed into view and yelled out a “how are things man?” It was Saurabh Panjwani – unexpected and thus bonus pacer #1. Saurabh had mentioned a few days ago that he’d try to pace some of us BHUKMP’rs. He quickly changed directions and joined me as I headed towards the first loop turnaround. I soon unburdened my doubts and travails and he set about reassuring me and prompting me to talk about last year’s edition which triggered many positive thoughts. A few km shy of the 25k mark, Saurabh handed me off to the runner couple (and pacing couple today!) Rinaz and Shilpi. I might have confessed that I was having DNF thoughts for the first time in my brief running career. He squashed that talk by reminding me of ‘muscle memory’ from the 2 previous Ultras and added, for good measure, there are WAY more people behind you than in front.

Second Loop: Running with Rinaz and Shilpi

Rinaz ran with me for the last few km in loop#1, then let me execute the turnaround solo and rejoined me somewhere at the 2km mark. He would stay with me for the next 17-odd km. And boy, did he showoff his pacing skills? He kept a steady smattering of runversation going… the ideal kind of one-way chatter that does not require more than a grunt or a syllable in response. We were averaging 6:15 in the initial stretch (which I was perfectly happy with me). He kept egging me on with “it’s downhill, let’s gain some time”, “it’s shady, let’s pick up some pace”. Forget about YOUR legs, just follow me. If you ever wondered whether gentle martinet was an oxymoron or a real person, I’d steer you in the direction of Rinaz. At this point I was also reminded of Murakami’s “my mind needed to show the body who was boss!” My quads (protesting in the first loop – damn them!) had started behaving again. I started getting back some of my inner calm. The confidence was returning. In test match terms, my batting partner had steadily allowed me to rebuild my game. I was still winded but I had stopped fretting on the “why”. The rhythm seemed to return but it would get punctured every time a blasted pebble got stuck in my sandals. This probably happened a 100 times and I only exaggerate slightly. THIS was the elephant in the room “rhythm crusher” that I had missed! After running KTM for the third consecutive time barefoot (barely 2 months ago) and extracting 25+ thorns, I resolved to NOT run barefoot at that course again. Now extrapolating this Aha moment to Ultra with its pebble-laden obstacle gotchas and non-trivial stretches of gravel-masquerading-as-road would require a level of intelligence that I clearly did not possess. Or maybe it was bravado? (Attempting to salvage some pride here)

Having a buddy pace you is such a luxury. Rinaz first (and Shilpi later) would race ahead and retrieve the Cocojal bottle (and ragi cake) from the baggage area obviating the need to stop, bend, and rummage. To the non-runner, this might seem like a small thing but let me say that it was a HUGE deal to me.

The stretch from 37.5k to 43k was more circumspect. Rinaz seemed to realize (perhaps better than me) that he could not push me harder so the urging changed to cajoling. We crossed Nari (who was a few km behind but looking much stronger than I did at that point). Rinaz switched directions and started pacing Nari and his place was smoothly taken by his cool-as-a-cumumber wife Shilpi. Running with her for the next 8k, you couldn’t tell she was rebounding from a stress fracture and this was her first long run in months! She kept a steady chatter going about her travails with loony doctors and biased physiotherapists and how she decided to back her own instincts. We ran alongside for the most part and, thanks to her bright colors, we attracted more photographer interest than the previous leg. When I grumbled about my inability to push myself, Shilpi sagely responded with “Now is the not the time to push yourself. Just finish the second lap and you can push yourself on the last lap.”

A short DNF conversation

By now it was painfully obvious that I would not better my last year’s PB. I was not having fun either. A perpetual state of windedness, periodic bouts of self-doubt (Damn it! Why was I racing when I was apparently not ready? But I WAS mentally ready, wasn’t it? What good is ‘mentally’ ready when you haven’t given your body the adequate mileage? Maybe I hadn’t fully recovered from my bronchitis?), and not to mention periodic blowing of the nose (my tees or the course faced the brunt of it depending on the proximity of other runners). I couldn’t imagine where these thoughts might have taken me had I not had the company of Saurabh, Rinaz and Shilpi.

There’s a first for everything. 30+ marathons and four ultras later, this was the FIRST race where DNF thoughts crept in. The timing of these thoughts was not coincidental. Once you complete the second loop and you head back for the final one, finishing is guaranteed (run, walk, crawl you can finish unless you run into medical distress). So if there were any DNF thoughts from 40-50k, they needed to either be strengthened or vanquished.

In a strange way, the case for (and against) DNF could best be described as not pretty. It had turned into a tough grinding run (on many physical levels) and the joy was vaporizing by the hour. Here’s how the perverted logic for DNF went… Did I want to subject myself to another 3.5 hours of misery? Especially when the prospects for ‘victory’ had disappeared? Did I want to ‘merely finish’ SO badly? I mean, what’s the big deal with finishing in 9+ hours? What’s the big deal with a DNF? There’s no shame in it, right?

Fortunately that day, I didn’t need an inner voice to cut through the bullshit. I casually asked Shilpi “Is there anything redeeming about a DNF?”

Pat came the reply “No. Unless you are feeling dizzy or something.” By dizzy, she meant some manner of life-threatening symptoms which she knew I wasn’t exhibiting. Not for nothing is her moniker Lady Don (LD).

The matter was thus settled and we plodded along. LD was going to see me through to the 50k mark and run with me a further 1k to the start of the forest section.

Irritation at the 50k turnaround

There are many benefits to ‘visualizing’ on a course that you have previously run. I had visualized the 25k and 50k turnarounds as a slightly slower rendition of Clark Kent executing a Superman costume change inside a phone booth. What I did not bank on was the on-course baggage counter to be a lackadaisical inaccessible mess. I started frantically looking for my bag, irately yelling out its description to the folks manning the counter. Sunil and Jugy (wise men of BHUKMP and legendary sportspersons par excellence) pitched in and found my bag in no time. Gobbled a few of the ragi cake goodies and switched tees. As a gaggle of 75k runners came into sight, LD raised the level of urgency and off we went. I had pulled on my shades so folks wouldn’t see how crabby I really felt inside. I vaguely recall Sunil asking me how I was doing and my response was on the lines of “miserable grinding run.”

LD bid me goodbye at the 51k mark with “You’ll do fine. It will be boring but you’ll finish.” After yelling out my thanks, I headed back to the cave to complete the job. I had switched on my tunnel vision and it seemed to help a bit.

…….

…….

Binge drinking is known to cause memory lapses. I reckon long distance running induces similar lapses. I have a dim recollection of the final 24k barring the following:

  • Pulling out a few hundred pebbles stuck in my sandals (and swearing like a sailor)
  • Remembering Murakami’s recount of his first ultra where he swore he WOULD NOT WALK. This was my mantra in the final 12.5k. My pace had dropped quite a bit, I was looking forward to the aid station stops but I DID NOT WALK!
  • Santhosh (of Runner’s High) yelled out an encouraging “finish strong” at the 72k mark and I thought to myself “How can I? There’s that 1km goddamn moat!” By moat, I mean the pathetic excuse of gravel-masquerading-as-road that signals the start and end of the bloody ultra. Yes – I’m emoting.
  • At the 63k mark, I smiled at another 75k runner. He smiled back. My smile read “Yeah! He’s going to take me.” His smile read “Yeah! I’m going to take him.” He would surge past at 64k and finish in 2nd place overall. I finished 24 minutes behind in 3rd My time was 9 hrs 17 min.

Yeah – I had finished and drawn the test match. Unlike last year, my enthusiasm for next year’s race was a bit tempered. I did want to race this course again but on different terms.

 

The Cult of BHUKMP

[Editor’s Note: It’s been almost four years since I started running with (and became part of) the BHUKMP cult. I never got around to writing about BHUKMP, aptly described as a “cult” rather than a group. The name itself is an acronym for the six races that every member should strive to run in a single season. BHUKMP = B_angalore Midnight, H_yderabad, Bangalore U_ltra, K_averi Trail, M_umbai, P_ondicherry/Auroville. In this post, the cult attempts to outline its core ideologies in the form of “Thou shalt…”].Multiple references to Dandi should clue you on to the fact that it’s a dominant part of the cult’s psychic rhythm. The Dandi Way shall be the next post in this series.]

Thou shalt get out of bed before sunrise at least ONCE a week.

Thou shalt save the Friday beers for Saturday.

Thou shalt run at least a 24k Dandi every Sat morning

Thou shalt run the 30k Dandi run every Sat morning.

Thou shalt run Dandi even if all other BHUKMP’rs have gone out of town for a BHUKMP run and you couldn’t.

Thou shalt be considered a member if you join the group on a Dandi run at least once and share your life story.

Thou shalt be very pissed off if, after having made the effort to run Dandi, one misses being in the group photo at Cubbon on account of being too slow!

Thou shalt recruit anyone running alone on Dandi route.

Thou shalt brood over the Dandi group photo after missing the Saturday run.

Thou shalt feel an extraordinary sense of pride at running more than a half marathon distance every Saturday and treating it like a simple morning run!

Thou shalt always runverse with fellow BHUKMP’rs except perhaps at the races.

Thou shalt DNF only under extenuating circumstances..

Thou shalt DNF and earn the right to judge the DNS (Did Not Start).

Thou shalt run the Comrades at least once before you die or you CANNOT die.

Thou shalt run a full marathon every month.

Thou shalt cherish the after run breakfast, talk about it in runversation and, if needed, fight to get your choice of restaurant agreed.

Thou shalt not feel shame in demanding new members to treat the group in expensive places.

Thou shalt focus only on having a good time but will end up having a good timing at times.

Thou shalt not judge the slow runner… or the elite runner.

Thou shalt not discriminate based on religion, caste, creed or choice of footwear (or lack thereof).

Though shalt always obey The Village Elder bechara elder group se bahar ho gaya hai.

Thou shalt not be judgemental about *crazy*. Crazy is a continuum, not a point.

Thou shalt use a Garmin. Or not.

Thou shalt overcome and hope to RUN (not run/ walk/ stroll) 10 kms.

Thou shalt WALK all the races if you are incapable of joining the Sat Dandi run.

Thou shalt write stupid posts in the group even if you are not able to run with them every Saturday in the hope that you don’t get thrown out of the group.

Thou shalt know the difference between the tank and the TANK.

Thou shalt either measure time or distance, but never both together.

Thou shalt strive to run/walk faster or further.

Thou shalt strive to stay (or catch up) with the peloton.

Thou shalt NOT, even for once, think about stealing fellow runner’s huaraches.

Thou shalt win a podium position and treat the group to breakfast!

Thou previous evening shalt the run even if drunk Thou got.

Thou shalt get more & more people addicted to the madness called running…

Thou shalt promptly post to your blog, the contents of the crowd-sourced FB post that you started 🙂

Thou shalt never forget “what happens in BHUKMP/Dandi stays in BHUKMP/Dandi” or else…

 

Chappal mein pachattar – my first 75k ultra

[Editor’s note: Translation for my non-Hindi readers: pachattar is the Hindi word for the number 75, chappals are the Indian rendition of flip-flops, a colloquial reference to my 4mm huarache sandals. This post is a very belated race report of my first 75k ultra marathon in Nov 2012.]

Somewhere between 12.5 and 25k.

Somewhere between 12.5 and 25k.

Just a year ago, I ran my first ultra – a 50k distance at the Bangalore Ultra (Nov 2011). It was a particularly brutal rite of passage into ‘ultra’ territory. Brutal because a large chunk of the race terrain was through ploughed fields. Barring a few mountain goats and gazelles who pulsed their way to fast finishes with nary a missed step, the vast majority were falling like nine pins.

As ultra races go, 50k is the equivalent of a ‘bunny’ slope. If you’ve been running marathons regularly for more than three years, sooner or later you’ll think about the 50k. After all, it’s only 8k more than the regulation marathon distance. But what lunacy pushed me to upgrade my ultra distance from 50k to 75k in ONE year?

Two reasons. I had been running barefoot for about six months by the time this decision came around. As I wrote in quest for natural running form, getting faster wasn’t a 2012 goal. Not getting slower was implicit however. What I was increasingly noticing (after each long run and race) was that I was getting less fatigued. The strain on the knees that I’d invariably feel (either starting at the 22k mark or  closer to 30k) was gone. This was somewhat expected because the forefoot strike gets more work done by the calves and demands less of the knees. Changes in my post-run recovery were more dramatic. Previously I’d walk in the door trying not to look like see-what-the-cat-dragged-in and hoping the family hadn’t planned a pre-lunch outing (a two hour siesta was paramount to take the edge off my muscle soreness and fatigue).

In my post-barefootia metamorphosis, I would return from my long runs and be greeted by “Oh! Did you do a short run today?” Or I’d ask “Which place for weekend grocery shopping?” The afternoon naps were no longer necessary. When it became apparent that this post-run recovery magic was not a fluke (and in fact directly related to my new running form), I started thinking that 75k might be a distinct possibility.

But what about the nightmarish ploughed-up Ultra course? Then word started filtering in that the Ultra organizers were changing the venue. The new venue was an eminently friendlier course in the Hennur forest preserve. My friend Jugy who has an amazing knack of finding awesome trails (KTM course was his first high-profile find) also found this beauty of a course in Hennur. A 12.5k up-and-back trail through a forest preserve which made for a nice 25k loop. There was a fair bit of tree cover (maybe 60%?) and a smallish rocky section close to the turnaround.

Three rounds of golf

I had it all worked out in my head. It was not a 75k ultra I was running. I was just going to play 3 rounds of golf on a 25k course. There was the little matter of playing all three rounds in one day, that’s all.

How did I intend to get my body into the golfing mood? It had to start with the clothes selection of course. White tee for the first round, blue for the second and red for the third. Since I sweat like a pig, a change of sweatband was also part of the plan. The script really worked out. It’s amazing what a difference a change of tee and sweatband makes. Replacing a soaking drifit tee and sweatband was almost like taking a quick shower.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

The neat thing about long distance running is that one can have long conversations with fellow runners even during races. This is especially true for the ultra distances because you are running at a slower pace than most of your training runs, thus allowing for conversations without getting tired. A 5am start at Bangalore Ultra (and a 6am’ish daybreak) ensures that even the fast runners hold back in the first hour. We had reached the Ultra venue very close to start time so it was a bit of mad scramble.

In the process, we forgot to pickup the torchlights. My compatriots (Praveen – who was running 100k and Nari – who was also running 75k) ran back to pick theirs but I demurred, presumably because why add an extra 100-200m to an already long 75km? I quickly rationalized my decision with the light is not going to help with depth perception anyway so.. From a practical standpoint, I had to stick close to a runner with a torch. Stayed with Praveen and Nari for a bit but they seemed to be in a hurry so I hung back… and found a light meandering at a suitable pace. This particular light was from Bill Nash’s headlamp and Bill was more than happy to share his light. And thus began our conversation.

Maybe it was his Cal Berkeley t-shirt, his friendly demeanor, my natural impulse to engage in conversation, or the fact that we both were running a 75k ultra for the first time (possibly all of the aforementioned), the conversation flowed like we were sitting at a Dublin bar and downing Guinness from the tap. Bill (a Jet Airways pilot stationed in Kochi) talked about his life — his career, his college-going kids, his daughter who spent a year with him in Bombay during his first year in India, the camaraderie he shared with the Indian pilots and crew in Kochi, and a whole range of sundry topics.

Not to be outdone, I talked about my years in Houston, Chicago and Bay Area, of Bangalore and social enterprises and blogging. Before we knew it, we had crossed the 10km marker, daybreak had arrived and the turnaround point wasn’t far away. After consulting Bill’s Garmin, I realized I needed to slow down further. We said our byes and he surged ahead. Sometime after two loops, I realized that I had overtaken him – presumably when he was at a water stop.

Closeup of the huaraches

Closeup of the huaraches

Walk the path? or finish strong?

The second hour was probably the most spiritual segment of my ultra journey. We had descended into a dark forest at 5am and it was beautiful to see the forest reveal itself bit by bit and tread by tread as dawn broke. The sights and the smells. The undulating trail and the uneven ground. Beautiful vistas all around. Somewhere between 15k and 17k, crossing the friendly hordes of 50k runners (they had a 6am start) was fun, especially seeing some of the speed demons from our running group. The title of this post, Chappal mein pachattar, was coined when my friend Rishi yelled it encouragingly when we crossed each other at the 20k mark. The first loop was completed rather uneventfully in 2:45. The white tee was swapped for the blue and off I went for the second loop.

My footwear plan for the ultra was to negotiate the first two loops in the huaraches and decide (at 50km) whether I needed to upgrade to shoes.  In the first half of the second loop, Santhosh Padmanabhan (Bangalore’s well-known ultramarathoner, running coach and zenman) egged me on with an approvingly rhetorical “Walking the path?” He didn’t realize it but I’d be pondering on those words between the 40km and 45km markers.

Mentally and physically I was feeling strong. No complaints from the usual suspects (quads, calves, knees). The soles of my feet were a slightly different story. They were sore of course. Not painfully unbearably sore but I had to extrapolate how they would be after a further 25k.

Did I want to be a barefoot purist and complete the entire 75k in my huaraches? Or did I want to take the pragmatic approach of upgrading to ‘Business Class’ (shoes) and finish strong? What, in fact, was my top goal for this race? These were the questions I was considering.

One less-known fact is that barefoot walking is harder than barefoot running, especially on barefoot unfriendly terrain. My recollection of this fact turned out to be the clincher in my decision. Since I was power walking all the up-slopes, I’d have a fair bit of walking to do… a not-so-appealing a prospect with the 4mm sandals.

I would go on to finish the second loop in a decent 3:15.

Home stretch with Nari
As I neared the end of my second loop I crossed my friend Nari (who was about 1/2 km ahead. He asked whether I intended to tackle the third loop in my sandals. I replied in the negative and he nodded approvingly.

At the 60km water stop I passed Nari without realizing it. As I reached the 62.5k turnaround water stop, I wondered what the heck happened to him..

As I hydrated and picked up some oranges, Nari caught up. Physically we were in a similar place but his body language conveyed a dispirited mental state. And we BHUKMP’rs simply hate that state of mind.

It was no time for solitary brooding and plodding. It was time for a good old-fashioned runversation.. BHUKMP style. We did the math and reckoned that a sub-10 hour finish was clearly in the realm of possibility. With a target set, we set about crunching the km’s – walking the up-slopes, running the flats/down-slopes, and tossing drivel at each other all the way. We finished together in 9:45 min and it was a mighty fine and satisfying feeling.

Next year?

My first 75km ultra done and dusted but you know the weirdest thing? I felt there was still plenty of juice inside. Can’t wait for next year, I thought to myself.

 

Running with Padmapada

In Walking on Fire, I wrote about breaching my first major barrier in barefoot running. The second inflection in my barefoot running adventures occurred on Jun 21. I call this my “Padmapada moment” and you’ll soon see why. But first this story of Adi Shankara’s most famous disciple.

Pic courtesy radiosai.org

Adi Shankara was traveling and they set up camp at a beautiful lake. Padmapada was foraging on the opposite bank of the lake, when suddenly the Guru called him… So intense was Padmapada’s love and devotion to His Guru, that he just ran across the lake on the water to where his Guru was… It is said that wherever Padmapada’s feet touched the water, a Lotus sprang up to support him. And hence he got the name Padmapada.

On that particular day in June, I had skipped my morning run so I was stuck with a compensation run in the evening leaving me with a grumpy feeling. After completing two rounds at a 5:48 pace, the grumpiness had turned to sullenness. Leisurely pace and the rocky trail stretches had mostly been smoothed away so why was I still in a surly mood?

As many wise men have observed, as soon as the most egregious irritants are removed from our lives, the less egregious ones make their presence felt. By ‘less egregious’, I’m referring to the 250 meter stretch parallel to Sarjapur Road — it had always been a hard surface liberally dotted with small-medium size pebbles on a substratum of gravel. Anybody watching me navigate this stretch (at least in the early weeks of barefoot running) would have been highly entertained — the numerous “ouch” moments would be externalized in a myriad ways — from Russian Barynya dance moves to awkward hopping sequences as I either flinched or tried to dislodge pesky pebbly stowaways from my feet. Normally I’d silently grin and bear it but that day it seemed like I was being mocked.

Something snapped. Or maybe it was a burst of inspiration that can only come to a shackled mind. “ENOUGH!” I mentally yelled and told myself – I’m just going to run the third loop fast – gravel be damned, hard surface be damned, pebbles be damned, <world> be damned. So I increased my pace in the third lap. I reached the dreaded final 250 meter stretch at an average pace of 5:15/km. I braced myself and held — might even have speeded up a bit. Nothing happened.

By ‘nothing’, I mean “no extra pokes and poundings by eager beaver pebbles”. In fact, it was remarkably less painful than the previous rounds run at a much slower pace. Miraculously, I was landing on non-pebbled surfaces for nearly all my strides. Can you blame me for invoking Padmapada?

With one more lap still to go and the momentum firmly with me, I kept going at the faster pace. I reached the nasty stretch with considerably less trepidation and.. (yet again) my strides were noticeably less painful. Padmapada was apparently still running with me.

Days later as I reflected on the ‘miracle’, it all made sense of course. I was running faster. My stride length hadn’t increased but my cadence (and thus my turnover) was higher. So my feet were spending less time on the ground (than at lower cadence). Less time on ground means less impact — a virtuous cycle that’s relevant for any distance runner (shod or barefoot). In this particular case, it assumed a special significance for me.

Closing note: I’m often asked if it hurts running barefoot – especially on Indian roads and trails. I answer “yes” – of course. These days I also add the following – Not all pain is significant. I wish I could say that was my original quote. In Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run: My unlikely journey to ultramarathon greatness, he attributes that quote to a fellow ultramarathoner and physician Dave Terry.

 

 

Kids and one-upmanship

Pic: courtesy cartoonstock.com

The conversation below is between four Indian kids. Indian kids who know that marathon equals the precise distance of 42.2 km and isn’t a modifier like “5k marathon” or “10k marathon”. The conversation took place sometime in 2010. I wasn’t a live witness but my friend Shalini related it soon after.

A: “My father has run a marathon!”

P: “MY father has run a 50k ultra!”

S: “MY father has run a 75k ultra!”

(pause… pause… pause)

A: “My father’s FRIEND has run a 100k ultra!”

 

It’s all a vast upper body conspiracy!

Pic: courtesy amazon.com

It’s been a little over 3 months since I changed my running shoe. I fuss and obsess over my new shoe like never before. To the extent that I’ve taken to washing them after every run. Strange, huh?

My previous shoe, the Brooks Adrenaline GTS-11 (green), has served me exceedingly well. I’ve been a ‘Brooks running shoe guy’ for as long as I can remember. I started off with the GTS-6 (circa 2002) thanks to my running mentor/guru’s (Mike Clothier) recommendation and haven’t looked back ever since. Barring an Asics Gel-2140 (which I used concurrently with the GTS-9) in 2009-10, it’s been Brooks Adrenaline through and through. The GTS-11 has been retired from running and it has become my everyday ‘work shoe’ — which means I merely ‘walk’ in them. Don’t think GTS-11 is complaining because I subjected it to 1165 running kilometers in a little under 7 months. Its stint coincided with my most prolific running/racing schedule ever – 4 full marathons and one 50k ultra. When I eventually do retire GTS-11 as a ‘work shoe’, it shall be ceremonially raised to the rafters — akin to my very own Michael Jordan “Number 23” jersey in my stadium home – yeah!

You are probably wondering what my new running shoe is. It’s not a Brooks. Not an Asics either. Wait wait! I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let me first take you through a scene from Satte Pe Satta (non-Indian readers: it’s a famous Amitabh Bachan movie inspired by the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers). Big B plays the oldest (and Sachin the youngest) of 7 brothers — don’t recall the actor identities of the middle five. Big B is the authoritative big brother who rules over the household – Sachin is his favorite brother and thus a disproportionate beneficiary of Big B’s largesse. Frustrated and angry with the unfair treatment meted out to them, one day the middle 5 brothers decide to teach Sachin a “lesson”. They egg Sachin on to challenge a notoriously wild horse in their stable. Sachin takes up the challenge, enters the stockade and is quickly rendered unconscious. Big B leaps in and rescues Sachin before further damage is done.

Moving now to a story closer home. You must have heard of the expression “walls have ears”. Bet you didn’t know that the different parts of our bodies have ears too. Heck, they can even talk. Only under certain conditions though. Just like the toys in Toy Story can talk (and walk around) only in the absence of people, the parts of our body talk only when we are asleep. How do I know this? Because I overheard the most amazing conversation on the night of Nov 13, 2011.

How do I remember the exact date? Simple – that was the day I ran my first ultramarathon – a killer 50km on some nasty terrain under the most un-Bangalore weather conditions.

The texture of sleep on marathon nights can be dicey. There are times when you hit the sack and you are out cold for a solid 10 hours and you wake up feeling peachy – your quads would still be stiff and sore but the exhaustion would be completely gone. There are other times when you are so exhausted that it gets in the way of your falling asleep. When sleep does come, it comes in fits and spurts until you finally wake up at 2am to go to the bathroom (and that’s only because your bladder is indeed full to the brim). Deep sleep finally sets in after that.

The post-ultra night of Nov 13 was of the latter kind, but with a twist. Sometime before the 2am trip to the loo, it seemed like various parts of my body were twitching. At first it felt like a ‘mexican wave’, then I realized that there was a morse code like pattern in the twitches. Then I started hearing the ‘voices’ – a low baritone here, a screeching tenor there, also a few distinct sopranos. Eventually I realized that the body twitches and voices were connected and it dawned on me that I was not  dreaming after all. I was partially awake and witnessing my body parts talking to each other using, what seemed to me, muscle twitching – which was bizarrely getting decoded into voices in my head.

Unknown voice: “Somebody PLEASE tell me he’s done with this running nonsense… for like TWO years!”

Hippocampus: “Ha ha. I would but I would be lying. A trusted source tells me he plans to run two more this season. Something to do with a ‘BHUKMP pledge’ it seems…”

Left & right calves (in unison): “We haven’t cramped this bad since the hills of Hyderabad. I wish he would take his hill training more seriously.”

Right quadricep: “Bunch of wusses! You guys are finally getting a taste of how LQ & I feel.. during the last hour of every FRIKKING race!”

Ankles: “It was really tough for us today – like a rollercoaster we weaved, twisted and sheared for 6 hours. Stupid trail!”

Knees: “Yeah – stupid trail! He tripped and fell so many times and grazed us! Really lucky we didn’t incur any serious injuries.”

Glutes: “Hmm… is there ANYONE here who’s not hurting? Speak now or forever hold your peace!”

Lungs: “All ok! Sir yes sir!”

Heart: “All ok! Sir yes sir!”

Soles & Heels (sheepishly): “Errr… we are also doing fine. No major strife to report.”

(protracted silence…all lower body muscle groups stopped twitching)

Left Quadricep (sneering): “Of course you must be doing FINE! Treated like the Queen of Sheeba — with those fancy running socks and those fancier shoes that he keeps changing every so often.”

Heels: “Actually those shoes have some nice cushioning which prevent me from getting hurt. You DO know that he is a HEEL striker and I wasn’t exactly designed for THIS kind of running.”

Right Quadricep: “And what’s your excuse for the pampering, dear soles?”

Soles: “Do you even know what we are made up of? There are the 5 toe mounds, medial plantar fascia, lateral plantar fascia, …”

Knees (rudely interrupting): “Right! We know as much about your anatomy as you know about the cartilages around me. You seem to admit that there’s no REAL reason why you should be encased in socks and covered in shoes.”

Hippocampus: “You know…lately he’s been lapping up articles about a new kind of running which, strangely, is supposed to be the old (REALLY OLD) way of running. The name McDougal keeps popping up in these articles. This running style (it’s called barefoot running) seems to be making an impression on the ‘right’ areas of his brain. Hmm…”

Kidney: “Shhh….. I think he’s going to wake up soon. I’m about to burst!”

The muscles stop twitching. The voices go silent. And I wake up.

(The story continues here – Achieving terminal velocity)